What FDC needs to do to reinvent itself and generate morale among its supporters
After his defeat in this month’s elections, Ed Miliband did the honourable thing and resigned the leadership of the British Labor Party. Miliband followed an evolving tradition of unsuccessful political party leaders in the United Kingdom – Neal Kinnock, John Major, William Haig and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown – resigning after electoral defeat. This practice is good. Ideally, a political party leader who loses an election should give a chance to new ones to test their mettle and, hopefully, bring new ideas and zest to the party.
When I was young and intelligent, I would have recommended this to every political party in Africa. Now that I have grown old and stupid, I am not inclined to. This lesson sunk home in my mind slowly because of what has happened to Uganda’s largest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Like many other parties in Africa, FDC has a constitution that requires its leader to serve only two terms. Kizza Besigye was the leader of the FDC. The most effective, courageous, and charismatic challenger to President Yoweri Museveni ever, Besigye resigned his leadership of the party in 2013 and was replaced by the noble Mugisha Muntu.
Although I am an admirer of Besigye (because of his courage and audacity) I am also critical of his strategy – or lack of one. His charisma, toughness, and strong will were vital in evoking passion and enthusiasm in his candidature and the fortunes of the opposition. However, while these qualities helped him solidify his supporters, they also undermined Besigye’s ability to broaden his base. He failed to moderate his political posture. This alienated him from many women voters, independents, and even wavering Museveni/NRM sympathisers who can be attracted to a message of change.
Armed with this insight, my gaze turned to Muntu as an alternative to Besigye in FDC. I am an admirer of Muntu whom I think is the most sober, principled, and noble politician Uganda has produced in the Museveni era. My disagreement with Besigye’s militant, almost violent approach to opposition politics led me to embrace Muntu as the solution to the crisis in the opposition. Sadly, Muntu has turned out to be an even bigger disappointment. He has dampened enthusiasm in the party, done little to raise money, crippled its organisational capacity, and demobilised the passion of its supporters.
These developments have led me to re-think Besigye’s leadership. Now I have changed. I think that it would have been easier to improve Besigye’s appeal to the aforementioned constituencies than to seek an alternative to him. This became apparent when Besigye left the leadership of FDC but remained politically active in opposition politics. Because he was no longer party leader, Besigye shifted his political activism from FDC to himself; as an individual, and other civil society organisations. This also shifted public attention from the party to the person of Besigye. In the process both lost. Besigye lost his organisational base; the party lost its most appealing leader.
This weakened the party’s ability to generate its own activities to keep its message alive in the eyes of its supporters. Muntu has proved incapable of stamping his leadership on the party, enforce discipline, fundraise and generate activities that can sustain morale. I write this article with a heavy heart because I think FDC is now on a stretcher. This has led to apathy so much so that many people have given up all hope of defeating Museveni, a factor that could lead to a big deep in voter turnout in 2016.
The decline of FDC has caused an equally disastrous decline in the NRM. NRM’s organisational strength has always been due to the strength of its opponents. Without a strong FDC, NRM lost its internal coherence. This allowed previously submerged internal fissures in the ruling party to come to the fore. Thus the big news is no longer the battle between NRM and its opponents, Museveni versus Besigye. It is about Museveni against his erstwhile ally Amama Mbabazi; the ruling party chairman against his party’s former secretary general.
It takes strong individuals to build effective organisations and institutions and over a long time, usually a generation. Individuals can make things happen. Institutions make things last. But even when organisations and/or institutions have consolidated, it takes a very short time to destroy them. Therefore the role of individuals cannot be underestimated, especially in the short term (20-40 years). It is wrong to assume that our nations have a large reservoir of leadership ability that you can dispense with Besigye today and get an effective alternative tomorrow. It is possible but often less likely.
Indeed, examples from Senegal and Nigeria vindicate this view. Abdoulaye Wade ran for president four times before he finally helped the opposition in Senegal defeat an entrenched Abdou Diouf. In Nigeria, Mahmoud Buhari ran four times before winning the presidency. Other countries may have had a different experience and it would be unwise to copy and paste their example onto every situation.
If FDC must find someone, other than Muntu, who can galvanise the party and give it new meaning and generate enthusiasm, I think it is Winnie Byanyima; Besigye’s extremely charismatic wife.
Winnie is strong willed. She is single minded. She is very scientific. She is passionate. She has exceptional political instincts. She has international connections. She can fundraise. She has a good feel of the political pulse. She is articulate. She is cunning. She has a name. She is an excellent campaigner. She knows how to use and even manipulate the media. She is a populist. And she is tough. She can afford to detach her hopes and feelings from her analysis of the situation, recognise the strength of her opponents and spot their weaknesses. This is the stuff that makes a successful politician.
Of course, Winnie has her weaknesses as well. While she can mobilise the grassroots, Winnie would easily lose the grass-tops. She can be stubborn and obstinate. She can be arrogant. And she is very polarising. It would be very difficult for FDC to remain united under Winnie’s leadership. And if the party’s grass-tops fall out with her, it would deny FDC the leadership necessary to mobilise the masses. In spite of this, I would still pick Winnie over Muntu. FDC is, therefore, stuck with the Besigye clan. Its best option is to improve on either Besigye or Winnie, not to discard them.